Robert Mueller has been appointed special counsel in the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. So what authority does this grant Robert Mueller, exactly?
As special counsel, Robert Mueller has all of the same powers as a United States District Attorney. This includes the ability to conduct a thorough investigation of potential crimes committed, to issue subpoenas, and to ultimately file charges.
28 CFR Part 600 outlines the powers of a special counsel. The law states that the counsel shall “exercise, within the scope of his or her jurisdiction, the full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions of any United States Attorney.”
Mueller’s powers are quite broad, and he could theoretically, for example, subpoena Donald Trump’s tax returns as part of the investigation. He could also subpoena any tapes that may exist of conversations in the White House.
Mueller also has the authority to create his own staff to help with this investigation.
“A Special Counsel may request the assignment of appropriate Department employees to assist the Special Counsel,” 28 CFR 600.5 states. “The Department shall gather and provide the Special Counsel with the names and resumes of appropriate personnel available for detail. The Special Counsel may also request the detail of specific employees, and the office for which the designated employee works shall make reasonable efforts to accommodate the request. The Special Counsel shall assign the duties and supervise the work of such employees while they are assigned to the Special Counsel. If necessary, the Special Counsel may request that additional personnel be hired or assigned from outside the Department. All personnel in the Department shall cooperate to the fullest extent possible with the Special Counsel.”
So who is Mueller accountable to? Theoretically, the idea of having a special counsel is that he operates independently, though he can still be fired by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It’s up to Mueller, though, to determine how involved he wants Rosenstein to be in this investigation.
“Except as provided in this part, the Special Counsel shall determine whether and to what extent to inform or consult with the Attorney General or others within the Department about the conduct of his or her duties and responsibilities,” 28 CFR 600.6 states.
There used to be a law in place specifically dealing with special prosecutors: the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which was passed after Watergate. This law stated that the attorney general could not fire the special prosecutor once appointed. However, this law expired in 1999, and so it does not apply to Mueller.